Interdisciplinary Workshop on Global Overfishing Casts a Wide Net

A recent workshop in Pittsburgh seeks to inform international efforts to protect fish stocks and ecosystems

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By Eileen Norcross and Michael Puttré

Fishing fleets around the world are taking more from our oceans than can be sustained by its biomes. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that 90 percent of the world’s fisheries are either fully exploited (55 percent) or are overexploited past the point of sustainability (35 percent).

Increasing numbers of people are drawing more heavily on dwindling stocks of fish. Richer nations have the option to modernize their fishing fleets to explore new fisheries while poorer nations may not. Moreover, fishing communities in developing countries often experience limited access to their own fisheries because of encroachment by other larger and richer countries. Those who would solve the overfishing problem confront a Gordian tangle of formal and informal agreements, economic policies, local traditions, extra-legal activities, and environmental pressures.

There is no single-stroke solution. In June, a unique symposium was convened to bring an interdisciplinary approach to the issue. Organized by the Mercatus Center at George Mason University in partnership with the Center for Governance and Markets (CGM) at the University of Pittsburgh, the workshop brought together academics, practitioners, and experts from a wide variety of fields for two days on the Pittsburgh campus.

Prompted by the World Trade Organization (WTO) 2022 agreement on rules to curb certain harmful fishing subsidies, workshop creators strove to build on that achievement to help inform a scheduled WTO ministerial conference in early 2024 that will include further negotiations.

Led by scholars Christine McDaniel and Weifeng Zhong of Mercatus and Ilia Murtazashvilli of CGM, the workshop assembled about two dozen biologists, economists, environmental scientists, political scientists, and natural resources experts. The format enabled a lively exchange across this diverse group of people that focused on defining actionable ideas for real-world solutions to global overfishing.

“Our oceans are a global commons resource, and for the WTO to tackle the subsidies aspect of that is exciting,” McDaniel said. “The gathering enabled us to bring Elinor Ostrom's work to bear on today's international policy challenges.”

The workshop focused on addressing three specific aspects of the overfishing problem:

  • The WTO and other international efforts (top-down solution to arrive on a global fisheries agreement);
  • Learning from community fishing practices (bottom-up solutions); and
  • Technology, data, and monitoring (transparency and understanding).
Questing for International Rules

The WTO plays a significant role in setting the rules and norms for fishing in the world’s oceans through international agreements. It is also able to enlist cooperation and design legal mechanisms to enforce compliance among nations. This is what makes the current agreement so valuable in many minds.

Having an agreement—any agreement—that targets harmful subsidies is the primary source of this support. The status of the new agreement along with hopes for future ones were raised even higher when the People’s Republic of China formally signed on at the end of June. China is a relatively large source of the world’s subsidies deemed most damaging to fisheries, and it operates the world’s largest fishing fleet. Beijing’s cooperation is essential to any effective international approach to curb overfishing.

Yet many of the most vocal activists working to protect fish stocks and marine biomes are patently unhappy with the limited scope of the existing WTO subsidies agreement, which covers a narrow range of practices that account for a negligible portion of the world’s live fish catch. There is a fear that more effective international rules targeting harmful subsidies to reduce overfishing may be unattainable through the WTO.

For this reason, some participants in the fisheries workshop pointed out that bilateral agreements between fishing nations and those with fisheries resources in their exclusive economic zones (EEZs) might serve as a more practical focus for protecting fish stocks. In particular, rich fishing nations routinely make formal and informal agreements that deplete the resources of host nations that receive little benefit in return. This may be through a lack of understanding or even corruption on the part of host country officials.

Learning from Fishing Communities

If international organizations cannot be counted on to provide solutions, perhaps progress can be made in smaller increments at the local level. Small fishing communities tend to regulate themselves using rules and traditions to ensure sustainable harvests. The fishers in a certain area today will be the same fishers in that same area tomorrow, the next day, and the next year. It is in their interest to catch enough to make a living but not so much as to deplete next year’s catch.

Those most affected by the health of a fishery are those best situated to receive the signals of the fishery’s status and take appropriate action (e.g., refrain from fishing for a while). Unfortunately, these communities often do not have the political power to convey this information to policymakers or to resist harmful policies. The opacity around most fisheries management leads to faulty approaches to unsustainable overfishing.

Workshop participants underscored the need for transparency and clarity around the actual goals of specific policies. Are the policies meant to improve economics or to enable conservation or to elevate marginal fishing communities? What is the scientific basis behind the actions of the organization regulating a fishery? All are important for the effective management of fisheries.

Piercing the Veil

Lack of information about who is fishing for what, where, and how bedevils efforts to curb overfishing, both at the local level in EEZs and on the international commons of the high seas. Identifying individual ships is difficult, even with satellites. Thus, some system of monitoring individual fishing boats is needed, both to collect data to support science-driven policies and to ensure compliance with existing rules.

The problem is how to place monitoring equipment on fishing vessels. Even then, selective use of ship monitoring systems produces uneven and incomplete information. Also, different ship monitoring networks from different countries make standard comparisons difficult.

The technology problem is not so much one of research and development of systems but of implementation and of countries’ willingness to utilize the information. Workshop participants proposed market-driven solutions to incentivize suppliers to operate with greater transparency. Consumers do not like to be lied to about what they are eating and where it comes from. Retailers could require their seafood suppliers to use transparency-enhancing technologies.

Lifting All Boats

As the WTO prepares to meet again on fisheries in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, in February 2024, the Mercatus Center and CGM hope to build on the success of its June workshop with a series of articles, podcasts, and other content on the topic under its new Future Fisheries Management project. By convening experts from a wide variety of perspectives who agree on the critical significance of the overfishing problem, the goal is to surface new thinking and find fresh approaches to addressing one of the many challenges facing global economies and governance systems in the 21st century.

“Our multidisciplinary approach adds value to the policy discussion searching for solutions to global overfishing,” Mercatus’ McDaniel said.